Long back the Hindu critic, N M Narayanan, during a December season wrote, "With Balamurali not singing this year, it was left to M D Ramanathan to add some color to the music season". Very apt words, since Balamurali added a lot of color to Carnatic music. He showed a different facet of Carnatic music to the world. Carnatic music in his hands was innovative, vibrant and witty. His approach ruffled many feathers but to his talent was so phenomenal that even his life-long critics had to grudgingly concede that he was one of a kind.
Balamurali was an artist with his own unique vision. An artist who did not want to walk the standard path. According to him, in each of his compositions he has incorporated something new. Many a times artists revolt against current trends and practices but only a few succeed. The ones who succeed are the ones who have immense faith in their vision and the ability to implement the vision. Balamurali was one such artist. He had his own aesthetics which reflected in his singing and compositions. We can debate on the efficacy of his approach vis a vis the traditional approach but we have to concede that he stuck to his vision all the time.
I am not sure what the initial reaction of the establishment was to Balamurali's singing. By the establishment, I mean the sabhas in Chennai. It must have been a bit of shock for them to see a young boy from Andhra, from an unknown parampara, perform with so much originality and perform music which challenged their notion of classicism. Here was someone who was approaching every raga in his unique way, an approach which was not always in sync with the accepted classicism of those times, an approach which seemed to put a premium on the words than the raga when the composition was sung, an approach which didn't shy away from introducing some 'lighter' phrases in between and an approach which was unapologetically flamboyant.
These features can be heard in his Kalyani rendition I have given below. Take time to listen to this piece. If you are running short on time, listen to this piece from around 7min 30 sec onwards
Right from the beginning, it is clear that Balamurali is approaching Kalyani in a non-standard way. There are many phrases which can be considered 'light' or 'filmi'. In this rendition, he projects his vocal powers in no uncertain terms. As I said earlier, he was unabashedly flamboyant. There are many breathless phrases which leave you transfixed and wondering who else can execute such lengthy phrases so effortlessly. He never gave up a chance to project his voice culture and range. This aspect can be clearly heard throughout the alapana. This approach helps in projecting various facets of the raga efficiently. At the same time it leads the singer to indulgence and sometimes ends up pushing the raga into the background. If you hear from the 8 min mark, you can bet your last paise (or your old 500 rupee note) that very very few Carnatic musicians can execute what Balamurali does. We can question whether this virtuoso display adds to the beauty of Kalyani and I know many who question such interpretations. At the same time, it is easy to see why fans would have flocked to him. For he was bringing in an exciting version of raga alapana, a version which was dynamic, challenging and which walked paths which others feared to tread.
His approach to krithis was also different from the standard interpretations. He understood the languages that he sung in and always projected the words / poetry. Here he is singing 'Nannu Brova' in Abhogi. (The krithi starts at around the 10min mark).
The way he introduces drama at 'naa pai neramemi' clearly highlights his deep understanding of the lyrics and his need to project the meaning appropriately. Sometimes that comes at the cost of the raga. His interpretations may sound 'light', eschewing gravitas in favor of projecting the lyrics. For example, a standard interpretation would have repeated the line 'gaja raja rakshaka thanayulanu' in order to expand on Abogi but Balamurali sings the two lines 'gaja raja rakshaka thanayulanu kani penchaleda' because only then do the words make complete sense. Most singers would sing the final line as 'kani penchaledha' multiple times. The line as such doesn't make much sense because it is actually 'tanayulanu kani penchaledha'. Yet the repetition of 'kani penchaledha' does add to the gravitas of the song and to the elaboration of Abhogi. This is just one aspect of how Balamurali differed from other traditional singers. His whole approach of interpreting the raga through the krithi was different from others. He sang as if he was the vaggeyakara who had composed the kriti and not as a singer who was interpreting a krithi. Very similar to how M D Ramanathan used to sing. (Only in the aspect of approaching a kriti as a vaggeyakara Else they differed quite a bit.) N M Narayanan said it the best when he reviewed a Balamurali performance of Tyagaraja krithis. "Whether Tyagaraja would have approved of this interpretation is doubtful but Balamurali's rendition was true to his own aesthetics". Balamurali was always true to his own aesthetics.
Balamurali's treatment of ragas and krithis did have a lot of critics and it still divides people. (Personally I rarely reach out to Balamurali when it comes to the classic krthis of carnatic music. ) He has legion of fans who can listen to no one else. As well as critics who can't stand his music and feel it is an insult to carnatic music. His approach to carnatic music was very revolutionary and shook the pillars of carnatic music. It was not the current 'I will sing thillana first and varnam last' type of revolution. It was more deeper since it questioned the very concept of what is carnatic music. In a way Balamurali expanded the definition of carnatic music. People are still fighting if it was for the best or for the worst.
Giving the lyrics predominance over music is what connected his music with the rasikas when he sang the Utsava Sampradaya krithis, Badrachala Ramadasa krithis and Tatvalu. Tyagaraja was at his poetic best in the Utsava Sampradaya krithis (and Prahalada Bhakthi Vijayam krithis.) Balamurali’s rendition of Utsava Sampradaya krithis shine the spotlight on Tyagaraja’s poetry. The interpretations are typical Balamurali and the clear enunciation of lyrics enable us to partake in the daily rituals of Tyagaraja. Be it the ‘melukoluppu’ or Tyagaraja inviting Rama to come into the house carefully, ‘hecharikaga raa raa’ or Tyagaraja reveling in the beauty of Rama, ‘nagumomu kalavani’, Balamurali clearly understands the state of Tyagaraja and it shows in his renditions. There may be other more ‘traditional’ interpretations of these krithis but Balamurali’s interpretation is second to none. I enjoy these immensely.
Balamurali was to Badrachala Ramdas what MS became to Annamacharya later. If you had grown up in Andhra in the 80s, the Badrachala Ramdas krithis sung Balamurali would be a part of your childhood. I think Balamurali tuned these krithis himself. The tunes of Ramdas were lost and the tunes we hear are the modern ones. (Balamurali in an interview says that he tuned many Ramdas krithis since the tune was not available. I don’t know which of the were tuned by him and which were tuned by others. If you know, do leave a comment.) Here too, the tunes highlight the poetic aspect of the krithis. ‘nanu brova mani cheppave’, wherein Ramdas pleads to Sita for taking his case to Rama, is charmingly tuned and sung. Krithis like ‘paluke bangaramayana’, ‘pahi rama prabho’, 'idhigo badradri' are still popular among rasikas.
I haven’t heard much of his own compositions. In this interview with Shekar Gupta, he claims that each one of his composition has something unique in them. I have met a few of his disciples and people who have been inspired by him. I could see the search for innovation in these people and it is something they had imbibed from Balamurali was clear. (One such person is my friend Ramprasad @hmasanandi. He is very inspired by Balamurali and he has composed some nice pieces) A musician friend of mine, who cannot be termed as a Balamurali fan, highlighted to me some of the innovative aspects of Balamurali’s compositions.
Balamurali’s personality cannot be separated from his music. His music perfectly reflected his personality: the impish smile, the mischievous grin, the flamboyance and showmanship, everything found a place in his music. When Doordarshan wanted to telecast a jugaldadhi between Carnatic vocalist and a Hindustani vocalist, Balamurali was the obvious choice. For there was no else at that time who had the personality of Balamurali to take Hindustani musicians of stage. His Jugalbandhi with Bhimsen Joshi was pure theater. The audience were as keen for the musical moment as they were for the dramatic one. Bhimsen and Balamurali were both showmen and they knew how to keep the audience in rapt attention. These jugalbandhis were great hits and Balamurali later did these jugalbandhis with various other Hindustani artists.
Balamurali was a media delight. He did not have a single humble bone in his body. His sense of humor, his candid assessment, and sometimes over assessment, of his genius, his no nonsense answers to questions, all these made media to seek him often and he obliged. Those who came to interview him without knowing about his personality would be in for a shock. Watch this video of Balamurali’s interview. The lady interviewing him displays almost all the navarasas as reaction to his answers.
A friend of mine spoke about Balamurali’s organizing capabilities. I have read that the years in which Baamurali was responsible for the Tyagaraja aradhana in Tiruvaiyaru were the best years of the aradhana. While Balamurali did have his run ins with the establishment and with people like Semmangudi, he doesn’t seem to have held a grudge on anybody. When he was organizing concerts for Tyagaraja Vidwat Sabha, almost all the great artists, including Semmangudi, performed there. “Everyone came because Balamurali would personally invite them. He would invite all the people who came for the concert and would not let anyone leave the hall without having dinner, which he would have arranged”, said an old time rasika who has attended these concerts. He was able to charm a lot of people with his wit and a smiling visage. Here he is imitating some rasikas.
Balamurali as a film singer deserves a separate post. I shall try and write on that aspect soon.
Balamurali added lot of color to Carnatic music, both through his music and his personality. While making music more accessible to the common rasikas he ensured there were enough innovative elements to appeal to the knowledgeable rasikas as well. He brought focus on voice culture and importance of lyrics in compositions. His approach to music and his personality were such that his legacy will be disputed for years to come but I believe in the long term Carnatic music fraternity will realize that Carnatic music was richer with the presence of Balamurali.